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Sierra Magazine
Hearth & Home: Carless Behavior

How to go far by driving less

by Bob Schildgen

With a national fleet of 190 million vehicles inching along on ever-sprawling asphalt through a pall of pollution and greenhouse gases, we should all cut down on driving. But abandoning our wheels seems unthinkable. Many of us would sooner give up indoor plumbing.

Ours is a society built around the car, and automakers spend billions to convince us that motoring is the only way to go. Like tobacco companies pushing cigarette-chic, the auto industry sells cars as fashion statements. Yet with a little research, attitude adjustment, and willpower, you might be able to break the car habit in a few easy steps.

Bikes are 46 times more efficient than cars: the average cyclist burns 40 calories a mile compared to a typical car engine, which consumes 1,860. A bike gets 48 miles per gallon—of orange juice.

Do the math. Is even a $12,000 economy car really economical? Tote up the true cost-the sticker price plus tax and license, gas, maintenance, insurance, and parking-and the total operating cost is about 50 cents a mile. That's typically about $5,000 a year thrown away on an investment that yields no return and rapidly depreciates. Add the hours you have to work to pay for a car, and its virtues of time-saving and convenience fade.

Walk the talk. Worried that everything would grind to a halt if we didn't have cars to convey us to our far-flung destinations? Many car trips are only a mile or two, easily walkable distances for most people. Our dependence on cars has warped our sense of distance: a mile seems like a long trek, when it's only 20 minutes on foot. Allow time in your journey for a brisk walk, and you'll save money on that health club, too.

Pedal purposefully. If you're within five miles of your destination, the most obvious transit choice is a bicycle. "I haven't had a car in eight years," says Bill LeBon of Alliance for a Paving Moratorium, an Arcata, California-based organization dedicated to supplanting the car's transit dominance. "In a smaller town it's not necessary." Thanks to cyclist activism, even big cities are starting to make way for two-wheelers. And an hour's worth of riding burns up 400 calories, so biking to the store or work is a practical fitness program. If you need further inspiration, remember 100 pollution-free bikes can be produced with the same amount of energy and resources required by a single medium-size car.

Pool your resources. For longer commutes, vanpooling is a solution. RIDES for Bay Area Commuters, a nonprofit organization in San Francisco, reports that the 885 registered vanpools in the Bay Area eliminate 16,600 pounds of pollutants and conserve 23,680 gallons of fuel per day, while saving the average individual an impressive $18 plus 30 minutes of commuting a day (vans roll along in the carpool lane). Another benefit is escaping the stress of driving. "Many people enjoy the downtime in the vanpool between their jobs and getting home. I actually find it comforting," says Dan Sperling, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California at Davis. Most metropolitan areas have a transportation office that will hook you up with a vanpool or, if necessary, help you start one. Or, says Sperling, "talk to your employer. Virtually every major company now has a ride-share coordinator."

Try transit. One 40-foot bus gets 58 drivers off the road; commuter trains, thousands. Study the routes, and you might find a bus or train more convenient than you thought. Sticking to a schedule can be a tough transition for drivers, but it spares you the frustration of sitting in traffic. And along the way you'll experience a world you missed when your eyes were glued to the road, find time to read, catch up on paperwork, or just doze till you disembark.

Drive, if you must. But you still might not need your own car. Car co-ops conserve resources by allowing as many as ten people to share a vehicle. For those major trips out of town, you can rent a car for as little as $200 a week. And the beauty of a rental is that it's not your problem if it breaks down. If you do kick the car habit, be sure to share your strategies with others-or join campaigns for public transit and against urban sprawl, the surest cures for America's unsustainable road rage.

For more ideas on cutting car use, contact Alliance for a Paving Moratorium, P.O. Box 4347, Arcata, CA 95518; (707) 826-7775; To learn about car co-ops, call Car Sharing Portland at (503) 872-9882.

Bob Schildgen, Sierra's managing editor, enjoys not owning a car.

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